Healing Haiti, One Project at a Time

QuadWinter2015_Cover_WEBThe article “Healing Haiti,” was originally published in the winter 2015 issue of Quad: The LSU College of Art & Design Magazine. Read the complete article (page 16) online at ISUUU.

Healing Haiti, One Project at a Time

January 2015 marks the fifth-year anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing more than 250,000 people and displacing 1.5 million more, and the country still faces challenges on the long path toward recovery. Haiti is hampered by the ongoing cholera epidemic introduced after the earthquake, killing more than 8,000 Haitians to date. The nation is faced with a lack of affordable, safe, permanent housing and soaring rent prices; rebuilding is compounded by weak enforcement of new building codes. Haiti is troubled by misallocations and a lack of adequate funding. Poor infrastructure and huge amounts of litter and waste, from plastic bottles and bags to polystyrene wrappings, are cause for ongoing health and environmental concerns. Deforestation and food insecurity are major problems, as well as the 2.5 million Haitians living on $2 or less a day, one economic shock or natural disaster away from falling back into poverty. Members of the LSU/Haiti Task Force hope to assist Haitians with these problems and more while providing educational exchange opportunities for students at LSU.

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Members of the LSU/Haiti Task Force (right) met with artists from the FOSAJ artists’ collective in the Historic District of Jacmel.
Photo by Matt Williams (MLA 2014)

The LSU/Haiti Task Force

The LSU/Haiti Task Force is an interdisciplinary collaborative of the College of Art & Design, the AgCenter, the College of Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS), and the Office of International Programs Academic Programs Abroad (APA). The task force’s strength lies in its focus on specific projects and its goal to align what LSU and its institutional partners do in Louisiana with what LSU can do with universities and institutional partners in Haiti.

Austin Allen, associate professor of landscape architecture, is a leading member of the task force and has extensive experience in planning and design strategies through his recovery work in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and through his work in post-earthquake Haiti, where he took LSU students on a service-learning project in the fall of 2010. Through his experiences in post-disaster environments and his research interests in resilience, recovery, and regeneration of landscapes and place, Allen has many “lessons learned” to share. His most valuable advice when working in post-disaster environments is to work with local partners on specific projects. “Therein lay opportunities for real exchanges in technology, learning, and understanding,” Allen stressed. And these opportunities are just what the LSU/Haiti Task Force is pursuing.

healing haiti 2015

LSU/Haiti Task Force member Austin Allen, associate professor and graduate coordinator at the LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, teaches courses that integrate communication and film with planning, landscape, and urban design theory and practice.
Photo by Matt Williams (MLA 2014)

Along with Allen, task force members include former Associate Professor David Weindorf and Professor Carl Motsenbocker of the School of Plant, Environmental & Soil Sciences; Associate Professor Wes Michaels of the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture; Professor Hector Zapata of the Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness; Dr. Joyce Jackson, professor of cultural anthropology and director of African and African American Studies within HSS; and Harald Leder, interim director of APA. The task force’s first steps were to identify key organizations and establish partnerships. “Although we have several goals, I think the most important is focusing research and academic activities on solutions for resolving problems of mutual interest and benefit. The four main areas we are looking at are culture, agriculture, the built environment, and entrepreneurship,” explained Dr. Joyce Jackson.

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John Taylor (center), wetland specialist for the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development, and Matt Williams, MLA 2014 (left), at Justin Jean Toussaint’s (right) farm in the hills of Cayes Jacmel. Toussaint is an agricultural specialist for the National Institute for Agricultural Research and a major force behind Haiti’s agricultural and reforestation efforts.
Photo by Diane Jones Allen

Last January, the group began working with Zanmi Agrikol, the agricultural arm of Zanmi Lasante, a nonprofit organization with strong ties to Partners in Health, on an agriculture and urban design initiative in Jacmel. Zanmi Agrikol’s mission is to give families the tools they need to fight malnutrition—seeds, trees, education, and even a goat—empowering families to grow their own food. This past summer, experts from Haiti came to New Orleans for a two-day seminar on the benefits of bringing goats into the urban environment. Goats have long been a part of Haiti’s culture, but in the case of New Orleans, researchers are looking into the potential of goats to help with the maintenance of the city’s many vacant lots. This partnership has the potential for real exchanges, as local United States organizations, nonprofits, and universities, such as the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development in New Orleans, LSU, and Southern University, work with nonprofits and organizations in Haiti on projects that are beneficial to both countries.

A City with Ties to New Orleans

While the task force is working in several areas in Haiti, Jacmel is a particular focus because of its strong ties with Louisiana. Jacmel’s historic district has a similar architecture to that of the New Orleans French Quarter, and New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have a significant Haitian population, one of the driving factors in Louisiana’s quick response during the early days of Haiti’s recovery. In April 2010, in the midst of the Horizon Oil Spill, the Louisiana-Haiti Sustainable Village Project, a temporary consortium of more than 40 organizations in New Orleans, worked to build an emergency village in Haiti by providing housing, infrastructure, and other services that constituted a community instead of a camp. The project sent thousands of tons of medical supplies, tents, household goods, food, solar units and panels via barge to medical teams and others in Jacmel. The outgrowth is a new consortium of New Orleans and Louisiana public and private interest, the Haiti/New Orleans Cultural Heritage Task Force, which meets monthly in New Orleans.

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Jacmel’s historic district is renowned for its old architecture and dense concentration of colonial houses.
Photo by Matt Williams (MLA 2014)

As a professor in cultural anthropology and African and African American Studies, Dr. Jackson is particularly interested in the similarities between Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Jacmel. Both street rituals represent a reservoir of cultural elements that are about the need and desire to celebrate life while expressing the complexities of politics and society in one large ceremonial. Jackson is conducting ethnographic research with people in both locations, with a guiding focus on “the viability of theatrical ritual performance and representation in mask and music and the operation of street ritual as a social weapon and tool of resistance and transformation.”

Jackson is leading a spring intercession study abroad coarse on cultural sustainability in Haiti this May. The course is open to undergraduate African and African American Studies students and graduate anthropology students. Its focus is threefold: 1) to provide students with the opportunity to learn about the historical, social, and cultural contexts of Haiti and its influences on the Antebellum South, specifically Louisiana and New Orleans; 2) to give students practical experience on how to conduct ethnographic field work in an international site; and 3) to provide a community engagement experience intended to strengthen students’ global understanding of how culture can fortify and help sustain a community, especially a post-disaster community such as Jacmel. “There is much to be learned and understood by our students and American audiences in general about Haitian culture and its close ties to Louisiana, as well as other Southern and African American traditions,” Jackson explained. “By educating our students, it will become clearer to them why southern Louisiana is such a unique region and why Haiti’s stability and recovery should be important to Americans.”

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Carnival in Haiti, also known as Kanaval, coincides with Mardi Gras and is celebrated with music, bands, and parades. Kanaval celebrations were greatly curtailed by the 2010 earthquake. In 2011, costumed performers satirized darker themes than usual, such as the post-earthquake cholera epidemic.
Photo by Dr. Joyce Jackson

A Place in the Urban Fabric

Students in the College of Art & Design have much to offer and to learn from post-disaster Haiti, as well. During the winter 2014 intersession, Associate Professor Wes Michaels took his landscape architecture studio to Mirebalais, a town about 90 miles outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Mirebalais is home to the newly built, $17 million University Hospital, operated by Partners in Health and its sister organization Zanmi Lasante. The teaching hospital and cutting-edge facility is answering the country’s immediate need for healthcare facilities by offering free healthcare to Haitians. However, Michaels pointed out, “Building a hospital requires a lot more than the construction of the building. A hospital has to have a place in the urban fabric.”

While the hospital itself is considered a great success, the planners overlooked the town’s size and ability to accommodate the almost instant influx in population as Haitians flocked to the city for healthcare. Because of the lack of temporary accommodations, patients and their families are setting up camps outside the hospital, causing sanitation issues as there are no bathrooms, showers, or clean water. The hospital is the only area in Mirebalais with an abundance of street lights and has quickly become a place where people want to gather, attracting street vendors and locals. Security is a concern, as people roam into the hospital at will, and the healthcare providers often have trouble distinguishing the patients from the crowd. The Zanmi Lasante organization asked LSU landscape architecture students to come up with a new urban design plan to incorporate the influx of people in the city and around the hospital.

Students in Michaels’s advanced intersession course worked on design solutions, which were presented to Zanmi Lasante and Partners in Health. Some of the students’ ideas are currently being pursued. The students suggested the incorporation of an existing site across the street from the hospital, rethinking the hospital’s check-in process for patients. One of the most creative plans proposed the creation of an additional town square down the road to draw away activity from the hospital while providing a gathering place for locals, businesses, and visitors. Michaels said one of the most remarkable results of the endeavor was the change he saw in the students themselves. At first, not knowing what to expect, the students were nervous about visiting Haiti, but once they were there, they realized it wasn’t scary, and they liked the experience. Michaels is taking another group of landscape architecture students to Haiti in January 2015.

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LSU landscape architecture students proposed new urban design plans for the areas surrounding University Hospital in Mirebalais.

A Collaboration Wish List

LSU/Haiti Task Force members continue to establish a growing list of community partners, nonprofits, and private organizations in their efforts toward a cooperative agreement. Potential partnerships include the South-East Department, the City of Jacmel, and the Public University of the South-East at Jacmel, a new university founded in 2011. Allen has identified specific partnerships for the College of Art & Design, such as the Ciné Institute, a two-year, tuition-free, college-level program that creates modern opportunities for Haiti’s youth through training in film production and new audio-visual technologies, and FOSAJ (Foyer D’Orientation et de Soutien Aux Artistes Jacmeliens), an artists’ collective whose mission is to educate and market artists and artisans; promote the social, psychological, and economic benefits of art; and encourage economic development through cultural activities and quality events.

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Paula Hyppolite is the co-founder of the Ciné Institute in Jacmel, a grassroots forum that gives voice to the stories and opinions of Haitian citizens. The speaker series,“A Soapbox in Haiti,” is filmed on the roads and streets of Haiti and champions the spirit of the Haitian people. Episodes from the series can be viewed at

The members of the task force understand the importance of being helpful and are being careful not to make promises that end up in failed attempts. By taking small steps and focusing on partnerships with local communities and organizations, the group is making headway toward its goal of establishing a semester-long program in Haiti with a focus on cultural and historical preservation, agriculture, the built environment, and entrepreneurship that is beneficial to both countries.

Written by Angela Harwood, Communications Manager at the LSU College of Art & Design